After more than four decades of inaction, Papua New Guinea’s electoral boundaries don’t match the people, but political interests are preventing much-needed change, writes Benjamin Raue.
In less than two months, voters in the largest country in the Pacific, Papua New Guinea (PNG), will head to the polls to have their say on who should lead their country.
In addition to voting for the country’s 22 provincial representatives, Papua New Guineans will also vote for 96 members representing “open” electorates, which span the entire country. These constituencies should, in principle, cover a similar number of people and are intended to be subject to regular redistribution in order to ensure an equitable distribution.
However, this is not the case in practice. In fact, the current boundaries have not changed significantly for over 40 years. After independence in 1975, a major redistribution was carried out before the 1977 elections.
Since then, despite many attempts by PNG’s Electoral Boundaries Commission (EBC) to redraw the electoral map, no proposed changes have succeeded in swaying parliament from a recent – extremely conservative – effort.
PNG’s constitution specifies that redistributions must take place once every decade. the Organic law on national and local elections provides more detail, requiring the population of each seat to be less than 20% of the average population per seat.
Redistributions of electoral constituencies are essential because they aim to ensure an equitable distribution of political power between the different parts of a country. Electorates are theoretically distributed on a one person, one vote basis, but this assumes that each open electorate has roughly the same population. Population trends change over time, with some regions experiencing faster growth than others, and other regions even experiencing population decline.
These effects add up over time, to the point that some parliamentarians represent far fewer voters than others. This phenomenon is known as “maldistribution”, where the share of seats in parliament allocated to one part of a country is significantly out of step with the share of that part of the population.
Reaching agreement on new electoral boundaries is always difficult when parliamentarians have such a vested interest in the outcome, with changing boundaries potentially affecting their chances of re-election.
Removing seats would see some representatives lose their position or be forced to run against other incumbents in new areas, and creating new seats dilutes local power and reduces the share of resources parliamentarians can distribute.
PNG’s weak party system also makes it difficult to achieve an outcome that is considered good overall, even though it may not be advantageous for some individuals.
It is important to note that it is difficult to gather precise information on the extent of maldistribution in PNG. By law, electoral quotas are based on the number of people in each electorate, not the number of voters. Yet the PNG census, due to take place in 2021, has been delayed until 2024 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although data on the number of registered voters from 2017 is available, it does not count anyone entitled to be an elector, not to mention counting the non-voting population. Registration rate vary by electoratewith a problem of “rollover inflation”, especially in the Highlands region
The average population per electorate in 2011 was 81,745, with the median at 74,139. Yet two seats had around 190,000 people – Anglimp-South Waghi in the highlands province of Jiwaka and Talasea in West New Britain – and another 10 had over 120,000. In contrast, there was a population of just over 36,000 in Goilala in the Central Province.
While the last redistribution led to the creation of 13 new voters (seven in 2022 and another six in 2027) in March 2022, these seats are generally not going where they are most needed. Only four of the eight most populous seats are proposed for duplication by 2027.
Meanwhile, many other seats marked for redistribution appear unrelated to their misdistribution. For example, Middle Fly was ranked only 38th in the country for population in 2011, but it is expected to be split in half in this year’s election. Conversely, the province of New Ireland ranks fifth in terms of average population per open electorate, but it will not gain new electorates.
The National Capital District and the Southern Highlands will have to wait until 2027 for a new electorate, while overrepresented provinces like the Central Province will get new seats in 2022.
the EBC Redistribution Report answers these questions by arguing that 45 years without redistribution has accumulated an accumulated debt of maldistribution that cannot be solved all at once. However, the proposed division of designated voters has, in some cases, compounded the problem.
While half of the duplicate electorates have above-average populations, the EBC prioritized electorates covering larger rural areas. PNG’s second-largest city, Lae, has enough population for two full electorates, but was unaffected. But, confusingly, Bulolo’s electorate in the same province will be duplicated in 2022 despite comprising less than 70% of Lae’s population.
That said, the most recent EBC reshuffling should reduce the overall maldistribution, if only slightly. Currently, just over 40% of existing electorates are within 20% of the quotient. The new limits for 2022 bring this proportion to almost 48%, and it reaches 53% in 2027.
However, it should be noted that all of this is based on 2011 census data. It is likely that new demographic data from the upcoming census will further widen the gap, increasing the need for redistribution. It is clear that while EBC’s efforts are just the beginning, they are far from sufficient.
MDistribution will continue to be a problem unless the boundaries of electorates in some provinces are completely redrawn – halving underrepresented electorates will go no further. PNG might also want to take a page out of Australia’s book and reduce parliament’s power over redistribution.
Australian federal redistributions that once required parliamentary approval to be implemented – which has regularly led to unapproved redistributions – have been out of the hands of politicians since 1984.
Electoral redistributions are always tough business – shifting power from some voters to others and shifting power between political elites. This task is made more difficult by a 45-year gap between redistributions. But the largest democracy in the Pacific Islands deserves better.
This piece is based on an ANU Department of Pacific Affairs Work document.